Pakistani Rangers stand guard after mobs attacked Christian churches and homes following blasphemy allegations in Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, Pakistan. Armed mobs in Jaranwala targeted two churches and private homes, setting them on fire and causing widespread destruction, according to the police. Photo by Ilyas Sheikh/EPA-EFE
Aug. 17 (UPI) -- Pakistani authorities arrested more than 100 people Wednesday after a mob set fire to churches and vandalized homes in a minority Christian enclave as part of a riot sparked by allegations of blasphemy toward the Koran.
The interim Punjab government said it was investigating the rampage in the east of the country, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Faisalabad, where it was rumored that the Koran had been desecrated.
No deaths were reported, but at least four churches in Jaranwala were burned, and as many as a dozen religious buildings were damaged as the angry mob ransacked the city.
"They broke the windows, doors and took out fridges, sofas, chairs and other household items to pile them up in front of the Church to be burnt," said 31-year-old Yasir Bhatti, who witnessed the chaos that forced him to flee his home. "They also burnt and desecrated Bibles, they were ruthless."
Government sources told news outlets that the Islamist opposition party known as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan incited the uprising, but the coalition later denied any responsibility.
The violence erupted after two men were accused of desecrating the ancient scripture, but there were few if any details about what exactly happened or what the suspects did.
Police only said they filed charges against two local Christian residents for violation of blasphemy laws, while local reports indicated that a particular Koran had its pages defaced and torn out before the book was found discarded near a Christian colony.
Meanwhile, several thousand police stormed the city to restore peace, according to Amir Mir, the information minister for Punjab province, who denounced the violence but also condemned the alleged insults toward the Koran.
"This was a well thought out plan to disrupt peace and a high-level investigation is underway regarding the desecration of the Holy Koran and incidents that take place afterward," said a statement from the provincial government, adding that police had thwarted several attacks on religious minorities.
Officials said religious violence has surged in the country in recent years due to the perceived mishandling of the Koran.
"The frequency and scale of such attacks -- which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable -- appear to have increased in the last several years," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement following the latest furor.
Blasphemy is a life-or-death matter in Pakistan, with insults toward Islam or Islamic figures punishable by execution under a strict 1980s law that arose from the British colonial period to punish those who disparage the dominant religion.
About 96% of Pakistan's population is Muslim.
The attacks left the Christian community "deeply pained and distressed" according to Pakistani bishop Azad Marshall, who resides in the neighboring city of Lahore.
"We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland," Marshall said.
On Wednesday, the advocacy group called on police to protect religious minorities and their places of worship and cited a 2014 Pakistani Supreme Court ruling that required them to do so.
Pakistan's interim Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar called Wednesday's violence appalling and said those responsible would be held accountable.
"I am gutted by the visuals coming out," he wrote.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel put pressure on the Pakistani government to investigate the attacks.
"We are deeply concerned that churches and homes were targeted in response to reported Koran desecration in Pakistan," Patel told reporters, adding "violence or the threat of violence is never an acceptable form of expression."